Bruce Boucher’s favourite painting
John Mcewen comments on Woman at a Window
The director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum loves this work’s ‘mystery and expectation’
In 1818, Friedrich married Caroline Bommer (1793–1847). A year later, to accommodate their first child, they moved to a house on the Elbe. This picture dates from around a time when Caroline was away visiting friends. Its mood mirrors a letter he sent her: ‘Everything is quiet, quiet, quiet here; this quiet is good for me, to be sure, but I would not wish to have so much quiet around me always. I eat my breakfast alone… I have my midday meal alone, my supper alone.’
Only when out walking in the midst of nature did he feel less isolated: ‘He who made heaven and earth is around me, and His love sustains me, and may His love sustain you and all our friends.’ Friedrich was a convinced Christian, imbued by a strict Lutheran upbringing.
Although not stated, this is surely Caroline looking out across the Elbe to the poplars on its far bank, the masts of two ships asserting the presence of the only minimally suggested river. The stark room seems to be Friedrich’s studio. Perhaps he painted her imagined presence?
The window bars form a cross. In Protestant new England, this was called a ‘religious window’. Of an earlier picture he painted of a cross, Friedrich wrote: ‘To those who see it, a comfort, to those who do not see it, a cross.’ The same can apply here. Some will see window bars, others a cross and, more than that, a comfort, the love of ‘He who made heaven and earth’—in Friedrich’s case, sustaining his family, their friends and himself.
‘ I first became aware of Caspar David Friedrich through an exhibition at the Tate in 1972, but I associate Woman at a Window with the cover of a Penguin Classic, Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. I bought a lot of Penguin Classics in those days because of their covers, which were designed by the legendary Gerald Cinamon. In this case, the image piqued my curiosity through its sense of mystery and expectation. Friedrich’s painting has haunted me ever since and I often return to it, wanting to know what that woman is looking at and thinking’ what she’s
Woman at a Window (Frau am Fenster), 1822, by Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), 17½in by 15in, Nationalgalerie, Berlin